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The Importance of Pulse Ox Screening

Newborn screening for critical congenital heart disease using pulse oximetry screening (also called pulse ox screening) has become one of the most vital screenings a baby can receive. This simple screening measures a newborn’s oxygen levels in their blood and helps determine if the newborn has any serious heart defects or diseases.

Why Pulse Ox Screening is Important

Many children are born with critical congenital heart disease, which is defined as a heart disease that requires intervention (whether surgery or cardiac catheterization) in the first few months of life. While many cases can be detected prenatally or through symptoms not long after birth, many children who had heart conditions have been sent home undiagnosed in the past.

When babies are sent home without being correctly diagnosed with congenital heart defects, they could become extremely sick or even die. This is because there are a lot of changes that can happen in the heart within the first few weeks of life. Thanks to pulse ox screening, all newborns can have their oxygen levels evaluated and appropriately treated before they leave the hospital.

While the importance of pulse ox screening cannot be denied, it wasn’t until 2011 when it was added to the National Recommended Uniform Screening Panel for the United States. Today, all states have put a policy in place for newborn screening for critical congenital heart disease.

Matthew E. Oster, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at Sibley Heart Center Cardiology who also works with professionals at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has looked at the impact of having this screening policy.

We estimated that it could prevent 120 deaths per year from critical congenital heart disease,” says Dr. Oster.

How is Pulse Ox Screening Conducted

The most significant benefits of pulse ox screening are there are no risks and it’s completely non-invasive. When an infant is around 24 hours of age, their oxygen level is checked through this screening. “It’s like a little Band-Aid that goes on the hand and foot and records the oxygen level in the baby,” says Dr. Oster. “A normal value should be as close to 100% as possible, but a child who has critical congenital heart disease could have very low oxygen levels in the blood because of the heart defect.”

If a newborn has low levels of oxygen in their blood, providers will start an evaluation to figure out why it’s low. The most critical cause is to determine if the child has a critical congenital heart defect, but there can be other causes for these low-level readings such pneumonia or sepsis (infection in the blood). Often times, that evaluation process will include a call to Sibley Heart Center Cardiology to evaluate the baby for a heart defect, which will consist of an echocardiogram to further evaluate.

To learn more about newborn screening for critical congenital heart disease using pulse ox screening, you can learn more at CDC’s website:

Congenital Heart Defects (CHDs)

Screening for Critical Congenital Heart Defects


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